Students ask me that all the time. All kinds of students. From writers-in-the-schools students to folks in a workshop that meets once a month, to Hamline students experimenting with poetry or novels-in-verse. I almost always reply, “If you say it’s a poem, then it’s a poem.”    

I’m not one for strict definitions. But here are a few about poetry. A few among— trust me— many.

Emily Dickinson said this when asked about Poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Since Ms. Dickinson didn’t drink, she wasn’t talking about a hangover.  But it is a lot to ask. In any book of poems I read, and I probably read fifty a year, there are only a few poems in any one book that— I’ll move to the other end of the body for this— even come close to knocking my socks off. 

Charles Simic said this about a poem: “It must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.” And W.H. Auden suggested, “Poetry makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

In workshops, I don’t spend much time arguing about what a “real poem” is. That’s the kind of conversation that college sophomores like. Especially college sophomores with a keg. If I’m reading something in a workshop and in it somebody sees a deer and then he goes on a bit about the moist eyes and delicate hooves, I’m liable to ask the poet to write from the deer’s point of view and see what happens.    

I don’t have to have the top of my head and my socks come off, but I like to be surprised. This holds true for me, by the way, when I read (or write) a novel-in-verse. I want to be surprised, at least a little, in every poem. 

Now that we’re chatting, verse is a tricky word. It’s too prissy for me who likes the demimonde, anyway, with its dark corners and sketchy characters. I can usually get away with telling someone I’m a poet, but I would never say that I write verse. That would be asking for a punch in the nose for sure.


Ron Koertge is the author of more than a dozen books, most of them novels for young adults. These include Margaux With An X, Stoner & Spaz, and The Brimstone Journals as well as Shakespeare Bats Clean-Up and the sequel Shakespeare Makes the Play-OffsStrays was awarded the Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year and chosen as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

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